There is a scene in Jerry Maguire where Tom Cruise’s title character, Jerry stays up all night writing a mission statement (not a memo) about the future of agent and client relationships. He wrote it because he realised he cared. I, like many others, care deeply about Scottish football.
Is this my Jerry Maguire moment? Not quite. I wrote this last week fuelled by me leaving the Scottish FA and when the Super League was still a thing. Scottish football was also demonstrating once again just how passionate we can be as a collective. Things have gotten to a stage where we have an open goal to push Scottish football to the next level in regards to marketing, storytelling and branding.
A lot has happened in football since news broke about the launch and downfall of The Super League. A LOT has happened since the Scottish FA suspended all football in Scotland in March 2020.
Imagine those with power used this opportunity to actually make positive changes to the game in this country. Changes for the right reasons; changes for the fans and for the good of the game.
Who is selling our game?
“I love Scottish football and I think it’s a breath of fresh air watching it, it has so many strengths”.
That’s not a quote from me. That was Darren Fletcher speaking to BBC Radio Scotland’s Sportsound last summer.
He continued, “I want the league to do well. It’s a fantastic product. I honestly don’t think we sell it enough.”
Whose responsibility is it to be selling the game and league in Scotland? The obvious answer and first point of call are the SPFL themselves.
If folk truly want to hero Scottish football they should endeavour to help each other and push the whole image of the league up. Too many only care about their own wee corner.— Ian Greenhill (@ohjawbone) April 19, 2021
We’ve faced plenty of resistance at times. But who else is getting Montrose on Football Focus?
Unfortunately at the moment, the SPFL have a small but dedicated social media team and unless they can guarantee a return on their activity then they are pretty limited in what they can do. It is a growing misconception but marketing is not just social media. The overall marketing strategy of the league shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of a social media team – that is unfair for a number of reasons. Investment needs to be made in people, they need to be given time and they need a budget.
Neil Doncaster has repeatedly said that any money that comes in, goes straight to the clubs. The well-trodden line of it is run by the members (the clubs) is repeated at length and for good reason, and herein lies the problem. Too much self-interest.
One of our many problems is that I am not sure anyone out with the SPFL offices could tell you what the brand identity is of the league. I would stick my neck out and say there are probably those within the SPFL that would struggle to tell you. Neil Doncaster’s recent appearance on the Price of Football podcast tells you everything you need to know about where this sort of thing ranks in importance to him and the league.
When asked about people still referring to the Premiership as the SPL nearly 10 years down the line, his response was “As long as they are talking about it, that is what matters most”. I am not here to bash Neil Doncaster, I get what he was trying to say but in my experience, this is the wrong way to be looking at it.
How many times have we had “the best league in the world” rammed down our throats over the years. Whether you agree with it or not, it has been by design, not by accident you keep hearing that message. The English media have played their part in building up the English Premier League brand, could we say the same about the Scottish media?
It should be said that those working in the media covering Scottish football are not all the same. There are plenty that champion the game in Scotland. Richard Gordon, Darrell Currie, Chris Sutton, Eilidh Barbour, the View From The Terrace lads, Gordon Duncan, Jordan Campbell, Ally McCoist and Chris Iwelumo to name just a few.
The SPFL needs to start championing the game themselves and others will inevitably follow. The question you are now rightly asking is how?
I am not going to write the marketing strategy required here as that is a hefty piece of work, one that I would be more than willing to commit to if it came to it, however, there are a number of things I would like to see.
What if money was ring-fenced to allow us to promote our game the right way?
“This is football” started doing the rounds the day after The Super League released their statement. I liked the sentiment. It can work on so many levels across the game as a whole and you can make those three simple words stand for a lot more.
“The league you can’t get enough of” – again these words can stand for a lot if we want them to. I genuinely believe you can also apply them to any division within the pyramid as well as the SWPL and below.
Whatever the tagline and that is all they are, we need to develop a strong identity for the league and it needs to carry through everything the league does.
And if the SPFL want to run with “This is football”, then that’s bloody fantastic.— Grant Russell (@grantrussell_) April 19, 2021
Don’t make that a one-day slogan.
Do work in firming that up as a vision, think about how you articulate what that means and then get telling those stories.
Sell Scottish football properly. https://t.co/i3WGXBrmJ3
On the Price of Football podcast, Neil Doncaster said the league prioritises getting fans through the gates. I have spoken to many clubs on the Scottish Football Marketing Podcast and a common theme has been the call for centralised marketing support. This currently doesn’t exist.
Many countries around the world do this to varying degrees. The Dutch do it well. I was fortunate enough to get a trip to the KNVB a few years ago and heard first hand of the team built to help support league clubs in the Netherlands and it was encouraging to read Ron Gordon at Hibs suggest something very similar only this week. I only hope this is not another flash in the pan taskforce/working party that inevitably falls away.
We should ring-fence the money and build a team to help service the clubs and the league as a whole. But I wouldn’t stop there. I would have the team sit not within the SPFL offices but as a separate entity, that can also service leagues such as the Highland League, East of Scotland and SWPL. This would take additional funding from the Scottish FA and the respective leagues to also ring-fence some money from the clubs with the view that they will recoup their investment from a well-marketed league.
Throw-in activating on behalf of Scottish football sponsors and all of sudden we have a team of experts servicing those who need it most; who could dedicate the time and manpower required to raise the bar significantly, offering a better fan experience on and offline and create a more attractive proposition to sponsors while continually innovating.
By sitting outside of the SPFL and Scottish FA but effectively owned by them, it gives that freedom for creativity, reducing the politics but having the potential to cater to the whole game.
In the short-term and when these things can be done in person, there is a real opportunity to bring together the many smart people, who genuinely want to see our game prosper and have a hackathon.
What is a hackathon, I hear you say? Historically a hackathon is used by computer programmers and designers to compete and build something to solve a particular problem in a short time period such as 24 hours or over a weekend.
Marketing hackathons are similar. They are intense but bring together smart people to solve problems in a fraction of the time. Imagine we did this for Scottish football. Imagine the people who could get involved. Imagine the launchpad that could be given to a dedicated centralised marketing team.
Talking of centralisation, I won’t start on the missed opportunity that was a centralised streaming platform for Scottish football.
Ask the fans
The perception in Scotland is we don’t listen to fans. To be fair, it is hard to argue against this at times. Whether it is colts, Challenge Cup format, restructuring proposals – the fans always seem to be an after-thought for authorities for this type of thing.
Have the balls to conduct proper research and use the data to help make decisions. Again, if you want to shift away from self-interest, the fans need to be listened to.
Fancy a beer?
I have been to football in countries across Europe, South America and I have experienced league and international football in Australia and every time I have gone into a stadium and seen beer on sale, I have asked myself why can’t we have that at home?
We are in 2021, and if I go to Station Park to watch Nairn County in the Highland League or Hampden to watch Scotland, the best I can hope for is a Fanta, yet I have been to Murrayfield to watch Scotland v England in the Six Nations and been able to drink Tennent’s in my seat.
It is farcical. I get there are reservations from Police Scotland and others about allowing people to drink at top-level games however this is not 1980 anymore. If there is still a nervousness about people having a beer at a game such as Celtic v Rangers or Hearts v Hibs, there surely can’t be nervousness about selling beer at Annan Athletic v Edinburgh City or Nairn County v Huntly.
I firmly believe that you’d actually tempt more people to go to a game with their mates if they could get a beer at the game while not putting off families. There would certainly be the opportunity to generate more revenue for clubs – centralised pouring rights anyone?
I would love to see a trial rolled out from League One down through the pyramid for a season. If fans abuse it then the relevant authorities can stand by their decision to have a blanket ban. 40 years has been long enough.
A true pyramid
Practice what you preach. The pyramid has been a hot topic and while not directly related to marketing, storytelling and branding; it is a prime example of how actions can undermine everything you work hard to achieve.
“The proposals we have seen, assembled by a small, self-selected group of very wealthy clubs, appear to be a cynical and very worrying attempt to thwart the core principle of sporting merit which rightly underpins European football. They represent a clear and present danger to the sport we all love.
“The SPFL stands ready to support all efforts to fight for the principles of solidarity, sporting competition and fairness which lie at the very heart of the game.”
The SPFL statement on The Super League was admirable. There are many that call for the Scottish Football authorities to conduct their business in a similar manner.
I am an advocate of the pyramid; if I had my way I would replicate the set-up of the Championship/League 1 play-off and have second-bottom of the Premiership go into a play-off semi-final against fourth in the Championship. I would relegate the bottom team of League 2. I would have the bottom two in the Highland League and Lowland League also go down. Why? Because while tradition is important, malaise, self-interest and protection are not. If you want to champion the game, you have to give everyone a fair chance.
Change the dual ownership rules
You may or may not be aware of Pacific Media Group. They are the owners of Barnsley, currently fighting for promotion to the Premier League as well as Oostende in Belgium, a team that has gone from battling relegation to challenging for Europe. They also own a number of clubs elsewhere who have seen an upturn in fortunes and who tried to buy a club in Scotland not so long ago.
Their pursuit ended due to rules around dual ownership in Scotland. We all want more competitive leagues and while dual ownership is not a cut and dry solution to this, I would suggest it is time we start being more open to it.
That is up to the clubs, the governing bodies and engaging those that are willing to try and make a difference. There is a real sense of now or never to put aside self-interest, look at the bigger picture and invest in a strategy that will make a difference to the future of our game.
A huge thanks to Michael for firstly, writing this piece, and secondly, for all of his brilliant work for the Scottish FA over the past five years. He’ll be a huge miss to them and to football in general, and it’s been a pleasure to co-host the podcast with him for the past three years.
Guest posts are always welcome on Sports Marketing Scotland if you’ve got an opinion to share on the business or marketing of Scottish sport. Find me on Twitter @sportsmarketsco or email the address below.
I’m currently working with a couple of clubs and individuals across sport to improve their marketing efforts. If you’re reading this and would like some help too then email firstname.lastname@example.org